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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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Monday, September 10, 2007

Nursing mother files suit against medical exam board

By Carey Goldberg, Globe Staff

Sophie Currier, the Harvard MD-PhD and nursing mother who was denied extra time to pump her breasts during an all-day exam of medical knowledge, has filed suit against the board that administers the exam.

Her case is currently scheduled to be heard this Wednesday at 2 p.m. in Norfolk Superior Court in Dedham, said her lawyer, Christine Collins, but that timing is still under negotiation.

Collins is asking the judge for an immediate order requiring the National Board of Medical Examiners to provide extra time and an appropriate place for pumping. Currier plans to take the clinical knowledge exam on Sept. 24 and 25th.

The board of medical examiners, the non-profit group that runs national medical exams, has said that it can provide accommodations only for disabilities covered by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, and breastfeeding does not qualify.

Currier, 33, is not claiming that breastfeeding is a disability. But it is a demanding biological reality, she argues, and one that -- medical authorities agree -- is important for the health of her 4-month-old daughter, who is still exclusively breastfeeding.

Nursing mothers who go for hours without breastfeeding or pumping risk painfully hard breasts, plugged milk ducts and possible infection, as well as a possible reduction in milk supply.

Collins argues that it is a woman's constitutional right to breastfeed, and that denying Currier extra time to pump amounts to discrimination on the basis of sex. A member of the firm Bowditch & Dewey of Boston, Worcester and Framingham, Collins has taken Currier's case pro bono.

Dr. Ruth Hoppe, chair of the governing board that oversees the tests, said she could not comment directly on Currier's case.

But she said that the board tries to keep the tests as fair and uniform as possible in order to safeguard the American public and ensure the competence of its doctors. At the same time, she said, it tries to accommodate test-takers with personal difficulties that do not qualify as full-fledged disabilities, such as breast-feeding, bone fractures, back pain and bowel problems.

"We try to do the best job we can do to balance those priorities," she said.

Given the questions raised about breastfeeding, she said, she expects the board to re-examine its policy on lactation within the next year.

Currier's case, which was first reported on the Globe's front page, is in the New York Times today.

Posted by Karen Weintraub at 04:00 PM
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